Fresh on the heels of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s visit to Washington several days ago, President Trump leaves town at the end of the week for a trip to Saudi Arabia to meet with leaders of Arab and Muslim states, followed by a visit to Israel on the following day. Think of a rogue elephant on the loose in a room full of delicate furniture and shelves of fine porcelain. Can Trump get in and out of the Middle East without breaking anything or leaving great damage in his wake?
“We want to create peace between Israel and the Palestinians. We will get it done,” Trump declared during his meeting with Abbas. That, by itself, is cause for worry.
Trump’s penchant for going off half-cocked, fueled by a thirst to do deals, could end up leaving prospects for a negotiated Middle East peace in even worse shape than before his arrival on the scene.
Trump’s dealmaking reputation rests upon his success in real estate development. Having served as vice chairman of a bank loan committee that processed hundreds of real estate development deals, I can say with confidence that negotiating real estate deals is to international diplomacy what tiddlywinks is to chess.
Getting into the ring in Saudi Arabia this coming with Abbas and other leaders, where the subject of a Palestinian-Israel peace agreement is expect to come up, is no place for an unschooled, cocksure president. Unfortunately, that’s what is in the offing.
“Over the course of my lifetime,” Trump told Abbas, “I’ve always heard that perhaps the toughest deal to make is the deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” adding that he wants to see “if we can prove them wrong.”
But how ready is he? Trump seems to have already missed an obvious obstacle that may stand in the way of the peace process. The obstacle appeared in Trump’s meeting with Abbas in the Roosevelt Room; it’s likely to turn up again in Saudi Arabia. It is manifested in four words: “issue of the refugees.”
Abbas slipped them inside his White House remarks. They will be heard in discussions with the Arab nations. And they will land with a thud in Israel.
“Issue of the refugees” is a euphemistic term for the Palestinian claim of a “right of return” to what is now the state of Israel.
Israeli settlement construction, prisoner exchanges and land swaps are negotiable issues incidental to ending the long-running conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis, and the achievement of a two-state solution.
The “right of return claim” to wit: More than 5 million Arabs and their male descendants, now living in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank, count themselves as refugees from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence with an “inalienable right” to return to the homes and property in the area that is Israel. That claim is fundamental to Palestinians. It is, however, a nonstarter in Israel. For Israel to recognize and allow implementation of the “right of return” claim — with the millions that would flood in to Israel — would be, as Israeli leaders fear, an act of national suicide by the Jewish state.
In the days ahead, Arab and Muslim state leaders, joined by Abbas, are expected to agree with the United States to fight the Islamic State and terrorism. But also expect them to lock in tight behind the Palestinian assertion of a “right of return.”
Trump, in his sitdown next week with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli officials, is going to hear that “right of return” introduces a poison pill in any Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Before jetting off to the Middle East, Trump would do well to spend a little time away from his sycophants and engage in an exchange of views with people who know their way around the subject. One example is Richard Schifter, a former assistant secretary of state for human rights and former deputy U.S. representative to the U.N. Security Council with the rank of ambassador. There are others who come at the issue from a different perspective. But knowledgeable experts are out there.
But what can you tell someone, such as Trump, who already knows the answers to everything?
“We will get it done,” Trump arrogantly declares. As though he were building another Trump Tower.